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From Fields to Table: Congress Threatens U.S. Food Basket

LOS BANOS, Calif. – In the heartland of California, tanker trucks filled with fresh milk still roll to processing plants; farmers have plowed under withered cotton stalks to make way for winter wheat or alfalfa; and citrus trees weighed down with navel oranges and tangerines wait for pickers to help deliver the fruit to the holiday market.

For several months now, the nation has largely been without what is colloquially called a “comprehensive farm bill,” legislation designed to make farmers’ often precarious vocation less so and to make – through funding for food stamps – poor and low-income families’ efforts to put food on their tables a little easier.

The country will still be without a farm bill – and the certainty it provides – at least into January, as lawmakers in Congress announced Tuesday that they would take up the approximately $500 billion legislation after the winter holidays.

While the milk tanks will still roll, and many crops are likely to continue being harvested, without Congressional action, prices at the market could, in theory, spike because government price supports for milk will stop at the end of the year. While higher prices for milk are not expected to be felt until the end of January, federal lawmakers said they expect to vote on a farm bill before that month is over. 

Another element in the current farm bill: Smaller food stamp benefits, which will cause families of modest means to spend a larger percentage of their income on food or simply go without.

U.S. agriculture is at least a $297.2 billion industry. Still, many people in the country overlook it. Federal tallies show the United States boasts more than 2.2 million farms, 87 percent of which are operated by single owners or families. Outside the farm, food stamp benefits helped an estimated 47 million people in 2012 – or one in seven people in the country.

Until recently, “farm bills” cropped up in Congress regularly.

Now that consistency – along with the accompanying assurances to farmers and low-income families – is on an extended hold. Lawmakers are looking to carve slices out of the federal budget, especially among Republicans eager to stop what many of them see as government handouts. Democrats, too, have favored cuts, though much smaller ones.

That divide in ideology is mirrored among farmers and farmworkers in California’s San Joaquin Valley, which has been dubbed the country’s “food basket.”

A Farmworker’s Perspective

Fernando – Fernando and his wife declined to give their last name – has spent 20 years driving tractors, helping to coax jicama, sugar cane and beans out of the ground. Similar to the millions of other farmworkers in the country, his efforts help feed the country and the world.

Though acres of produce surround him every day, his modest wages require that he and his extended family of 12 live in low-income housing in Fresno and rely on food stamps to help keep everyone fed.

A report by the nonprofit group California Food Policy Advocates notes that the state’s agricultural center is also one of the areas where poor Californians are most likely to go hungry.

Just after a full day’s work, Fernando sat outside his modest dwelling, surrounded by his large family, the husks of roasted corn he’d just finished with his dinner sitting in a bucket nearby. In a slow, quiet voice, Fernando admitted he doesn’t pay much attention to what Congress is doing regarding a new farm bill.

His main focus: Taking care of his family. He doesn’t ponder whether his employers might stop planting if they can’t get crop insurance under the bill: “I could be affected, but I would just look for another job,” said the Michoacán, Mexico, native, the skin around his eyes narrowed and darkened by his labors in the sun.

His wife, Patricia, said a loss of food stamps would devastate the delicate finances of her family. She does much of the household work, cooking and washing clothes.

A proposal from the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would cut $4 billion a year from the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The cuts would amount to around $40 a month for a family of four. The Democrat-controlled Senate also favors cuts – but at $400 million a year.

SNAP benefits made up more than two-thirds of the funding in the 2008 farm bill. According to a study by California Food Policy Advocates, 70 percent of those eligible in Fresno County participate in the SNAP program, the state’s highest ratio.

Most farmworkers in California earn at or just above the state’s $8-an-hour minimum wage. Some are paid a rate based on the number of boxes filled with items that they have picked.

Jaime Lucero, married to Fernando’s eldest daughter, came home on a chilly November night with a picking sack draped over his shoulder. The sack is weighty on its own, but can total 30 to 40 pounds after Lucero has filled it with oranges, mandarins or whatever fruit or nut crop is in season. Lucero got only six hours of work in that day because heavy morning dew delayed the harvest, which must be done at drier times of the day to preserve the produce.

“We just do the job,” he said.

Dairy Farming – an Industry in Jeopardy

In a state famous for movie production and technology, agriculture is still the biggest industry. Fresno County produced nearly $6.6 billion in agricultural products in 2012. The raisins, plums, peaches and cattle, among other products and livestock raised in the county, routinely amount to the nation’s largest output.

In Merced County, next door to Fresno County, milk production amounted to more than $940 million, by itself one-third of the county’s $2.8 billion in 2012 farm production.

Merced County dairy farmers Dennis and Kirsten Areias haven’t followed the contested agricultural debates in Washington, D.C., closely, but after a 2007 Congressional edict to produce fuel from the nation’s corn supply sent cattle feed prices soaring, they say they don’t necessarily trust the government to do what’s best for those who feed the nation’s 317 million people.

If the federal government doesn’t provide help, they hope it at least won’t create any further burdens for the volatile dairy industry.

The Areiases should be enjoying near record-high prices for milk, which is sold at about $18 per 100 pounds (about 11.5 gallons), but that gain has been more than eaten up by the cost of feed products, such as alfalfa and corn, which now cost several hundred dollars a ton. With the Areiases’ cattle feasting on about 25 tons daily, the costs add up quickly.

“When feed prices skyrocketed last year, they put in a suicide hotline for the dairymen,” Kirsten Areias said.

The couple grew their 350-head dairy farm from nothing, adding to it bit by bit over the past three decades. The Areiases and a small number of employees care for the cattle, managing some cropland – mostly feed for the cattle – and a breeding operation that has kept the business afloat in the face of several economically-challenging years.

Dennis Areias said shrinking milk prices in 2009 wiped out 15 years of equity in just nine months.

Still, Areias has a passion for what he does, walking behind the cows lined up at the trough during feeding time, checking their health and whether they’re ready to be bred again. He said he knows each one without looking at their identifying tags.

The Areiases said the number of dairies in California has dropped by about 100 a year, with little public thought about the consequences because California’s 38 million residents are still able to buy milk easily at the corner store.

But the importance of the industry is not just about supply for the demand, Dennis Areias said. Between milk processing and distribution to stores, “Hundreds of people are employed by my dairy if you go down the entire food chain.”

Historically, farm bills have aimed to provide either economic stimulus — such as price supports as part of New Deal legislation during the Great Depression — or as a way to maintain an ample, independent food supply during times of international uncertainty, like World War II or the Cold War.

At a recent speech in Fresno, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urged Congress to work out a deal for a new farm bill.

“Every single American benefits from [a farm] bill in one way or another,” The Fresno Bee quoted Vilsack as saying.

Chris Keeler, who works as a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) liaison to farmers in Merced County, backed up his boss’s sentiments.

On average, Keeler noted, most U.S. families spend about 11 percent of their incomes for food. That compares to 20 percent in Europe, and 90 percent in most of Africa. USDA studies have shown, however, that poor families in the United States spend almost 20 percent of their incomes on food.

Most farm bills passed by Congress in recent decades have had five-year lifespans. The most recent, approved in 2008, expired in early 2013, though Congress voted to extend some provisions for another nine months to a year.

One of the provisions set to expire on Jan. 1 helps to stabilize the price of milk. Without it, the USDA would have to revert to outdated “permanent” or “parity” laws set in the 1930s and 1940s. Those laws, for example, could force the federal government to buy milk at more than $30 per hundredweight, about twice the going rate.

Although that may sound like a windfall for struggling dairymen, such a sudden change would, instead, badly hurt the industry, said Darrin Monteiro, director of member relations at California Dairies Inc.

California Dairies is a processing and distribution cooperative that includes 420 family-owned dairies stretching across two-thirds of the state, from San Diego north almost to Sacramento.

Reverting to parity law “is not good for producers or consumers. It disrupts the laws of supply and demand,” Monteiro said, perhaps causing a plummet in demand as prices spike. “Consumers wouldn’t be able to handle it at that price. It’s not good for anyone involved.”

What will happen in Congress has yet to be written and approved, but Monteiro hoped for some kind of a farm bill extension, at least.

Not Everyone Agrees a Farm Bill is a Good Thing 

Ryan C. Indart oversees a sheep ranching operation in Fresno County and also grows cherries, oranges, almonds and wheat. Indart would like to see most of the farm bill evaporate, particularly subsidies, payments he admits receiving for some of the crops he grows.

“It’s antiquated, and it’s rooted in decades-old policy that isn’t needed anymore. … Those direct payments are just another form of welfare,” Indart said as hundreds of his sheep contentedly munched a nearby alfalfa field.

The one thing he believes should remain is crop insurance, though he stressed it should be privately administered but backed by the government. Indart can’t get insurance for his wheat crops on the arid west side of the San Joaquin Valley because there’s often a lack of rain.

“In that case, they should just jack up the premiums, and let the farmer decide,” Indart said.

Subsidies are often now perceived as farmers getting “free money” from the government, USDA’s Keeler acknowledged. A new farm bill is likely to phase out remaining subsidies in favor of insurance programs such as the one Indart described.

Similarly, California Dairies’ Monteiro said it seems the House and Senate have agreed on “margin insurance” for dairymen, which would help in instances where lower milk prices and higher feed costs begin to squeeze dairy operations.

“We don’t talk about agriculture in this country”

As the end of the year approached, the debate went on in the halls of Congress, though much of the discourse seems to have escaped the attention of even those in the agriculture business.

For many workers in the agriculture industry, supporting their families remained key. On a recent November day, Alejandro Guerrero, 21, and about 20 fellow workers pruned 30 acres of peach trees outside the small town of Dinuba, southeast of Fresno.

Guerrero has a wife, a five-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. Those, Guerrero noted, are the reasons he works nine hours a day, often six days a week in Central California’s orchards. Many times, those long days are bookended by two-hour drives to orchards on the far side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Laden with fruit-filled bags, Guerrero has picked orchards in the summer’s simmering heat. In the winter, he said, morning frost coats the trees and slicks steps on the aluminum ladders the workingmen use to reach and trim the higher branches.

“Later in the morning, when it warms up, the trees start dripping on us,” Guerrero said.

Still, he asserted, “It’s decent work. …It gets bills paid, and it puts food on the table.”

That the farm bill hasn’t fully appeared on the national radar isn’t surprising to Kirsten Areias, who sits on the California Milk Advisory Board, the force behind the “Happy Cows” and other advertising hits.

“We don’t talk about agriculture” in this country, Areias lamented. “We just had a presidential election, and nobody talked about farming. Until we all get how important agriculture is, we could all lose.”


Michael Mello is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Ariz. He is a former staff reporter for the Orange County Register. This report includes information from The Associated Press.

2013 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper


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